By David E. Gehlke
The demanding, physical style of MESHUGGAH's groundbreaking, oft-copied style of polyrhythmic metal has taken its toll. Lead guitarist Fredrik Thordendal sat out most of the tour dates in support of 2016's "The Violent Sleep Of Reason" and only recently returned to the band. Rhythm guitarist Mårten Hagström has been suffering from ongoing shoulder problems for years. And most recently, drummer Tomas Haake developed eczema inside his hands, a potentially huge problem considering his vital role in holding together MESHUGGAH's complex rhythms.
These are certainly not the things the long-running Swedes wanted to deal with as their ninth studio album, "Immutable", was released. The album also marks their first release on the new Atomic Fire Records, the creation of Nuclear Blast Records' founder Markus Staiger, who signed the band and was their only label home since their 1987 inception. But with a new label home and Father Time now breathing down their necks, Haake shared with BLABBERMOUTH.NET that the mood within MESHUGGAH is positive, something that should serve them well as they endure the roughest patch of their career.
Blabbermouth: Atomic Fire is Markus's new label, so MESHUGGAH has some familiarity on that front. But, will it be odd for you the first time you look at the back of "Immutable" and not see the Nuclear Blast Records logo?
Tomas: "I never really thought about it like that. First of all, we always worked very closely with Nuclear Blast in Germany and the L.A. office. It was a weird situation for us [changing labels]. We hated it. We didn't want to choose because there are so many people we enjoyed working with and it's been a well-functioning relationship for the last 15 years. It was kind of a bummer. But at the same time, Markus was the one who signed us for the first album and always had a sweet spot for us and pushed us on and was a big champion for the band. When it came down to it, it was about loyalty. We couldn't see ourselves not being with Markus. We've been working with him for 32 years since we were all kids, him included. [Laughs]"
Blabbermouth: Since MESHUGGAH is well-established, how much do you need a label now? Was there any thought given to that?
Tomas: "For us, that's hard to gauge just because we've been with a label our whole career. It might be a different situation for some young bands that are really fluent with everything online, marketing and social media. For what we want to do now in this time and age and the place in our career where we're at, we need to have people who take care of everything from promotion to making sure this and this work and making sure distribution is set up. Obviously, it's less about physical product and more about Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora. We're old-school. We want physical products like vinyl and even cassettes are coming back, which is weird. I think it's hard to gauge how we would do without a label. I'm sure it would work. We have a name and have been around for a long time. The fanbase is already there. We don't have to start over. We don't have to build anything from the ground up. At the same time, we want to focus on music. The work that we used to do as a band, up until 2010 or 2012, we didn't have a manager or anything. Over the last ten years, we've put that on our manager and our label to do all those things. At some point, it got to be too much. It's one thing to have someone outside of the band to point at when something goes wrong, but when one or two guys in the band fucked it up, it's different. Not that ever happened, but you run the risk of that. So we prefer to have other people deal with that. It comes in handy to have a label and manager who does all that stuff for us. At the end of the day, it costs us some money, but at the same time, it makes our lives a lot easier."
Blabbermouth: Fredrik was away from the band for the last few years. Per [Nilsson] seemed like the only guy who conceivably could do it.
Tomas: "How do you choose someone to stand in for someone like Fredrik where we've been the same setup except for a couple of changes in bass player? The new kid has been in the band for 18 years at this point. Dick [Lövgren, bass], he's the new kid. [Laughs] It gets a little weird when you take one of the founding members that have always been there. You take him out of the equation. A thousand people can play it and perform it technically, just on a technical level. Yeah, we could bring an 18-year-old kid out who can play everything and Fredrik's parts. That is only a little part of it of what it means to play in a band like this. First of all, we were stoked we found Per, not because he's a tremendous guitar player but also because he's Swedish. He's been around the scene for a long time with his own band [SCAR SYMMETRY]. That felt very good to us and he was someone our age who has been around for a long time and has been doing similar stuff. He lives two hours away from our rehearsal space. He would drive two hours, rehearse for an hour, then go back two hours. It was a five-hour trip. He would do that sometimes daily for weeks on end. [Laughs] His technicality as a guitar player is second-to-none, but there's still the aspect of him fitting into the band, but he has his own style. Fredrik has his own style and his leads are hard to emulate, but we're happy to have him back and he will be with us for a good while. He's definitely doing the first few runs that we have, so we'll see. But we're going to feel it out and he's going to feel it out. It's more a matter of how he feels about touring. It wasn't just him wanting to be more focused on his solo project and building a studio that he's been building for three or four years. It was also a matter of him being tired of touring. He wasn't stoked about touring. You have that aspect, too. Even though he feels excited and excited about it now, we have no idea how he's going to feel a year from now once we get back into that. We'll just have to wait and see. Right now, the plan is for him to come back and keep going."
Blabbermouth: If Fredrik opts to sit out again, is Per the guy?
Tomas: "We haven't talked about it like that because we haven't felt there is a reason to talk about a backup. But if we would end up in that position, yes, I would believe he'd be our go-to. Hopefully, he'd be available and willing to do it if that's the case. But, we're not there for a contingency at this point."
Blabbermouth: How did Fredrik's absence impact the making of "Immutable"? Or was it primarily you and Mårten handling the writing?
Tomas: "It was very much with Dick and he was also a big contributor to 'The Violent Sleep Of Reason'. Me and Dick worked on a lot of the songs for 'The Violent Sleep' and me and Mårten worked on a few songs on that, then Mårten wrote his own songs for that record. Fredrik didn't write any material for that one, either. It's not a big difference in that regard. But, it had a direct effect in that sense. If you have a songwriter out, you have to replace him with something else. The new album has more than ever has Mårten's songwriting, which means it does shape the overall vibe and it's going to be different if you go back to 'ObZen' where Fredrik wrote a lot. They are different people and write a different kind of music. There's definitely something to be said about that aspect of it as far as it impacts our writing, not maybe the writing, but the outcome of the album and what material you're going to find on there. It has an effect like that. Then again, he kind of started writing for 'Koloss', he didn't write that much either. He wrote one whole track. Then we worked on a few things, me and him and Mårten to finalize some songs. But he hasn't written a whole chunk of music as he did for 'ObZen'. He started to dial down and focus more on his solo stuff. At this point, he's spent years becoming a drummer again. He started as a drummer when he was a kid. When Fredrik was ten years old, he and Jens [Kidman, vocals] actually played in early punk bands. He was the drummer for Jens's bands. Fredrik has always had a great sense of drums. He got back into that and spent years practicing that, too. His focus has been more toward other things, if you will. To a certain degree, he also relied on us because he knew at that point that we could definitely write the albums without him. I think it would have been harder for him to step aside if he knew we needed him for everything to be able to be a band. He knew that was not the case, so that let him in his own mind to trail off to the side and focus on his thing."
Blabbermouth: "Immutable" is your longest album to date. Given your style, was there a lot of consideration given to sequencing?
Tomas: "A lot. That was a crucial aspect. We're old-school. When we write an album, we're writing for people to listen to the whole way through and if you do, it should take you on a cool trip throughout the album. Maybe more on this one than any other album. For the last four or five albums, that's been a crucial aspect. It's not just about the music. It's about how you start the album, what it goes through, how it ends, using dynamics like we have some parts on this album that takes it down and you brush out of the ears of the listener with an instrumental track. The sequencing of songs are crucial and to a certain degree, [METALLICA's] 'Master Of Puppets' was used a guideline for how we wanted 'Immutable'. The sequencing on that album is one giant aspect of why it's so good. Obviously, the material is great, but it will always be one of the greatest metal albums, but the sequencing is very crucial. We had that one a little bit in mind, maybe not when we wrote it, but when we were trying to figure out the sequencing and 'They Move Below', so that's the 'Immutable' 'Orion', if you will."
Blabbermouth: Let's talk about "They Move Below". It plots some new territory for MESHUGGAH. Could you do more songs like this in the future?
Tomas: "I think that is all Mårten. He's always had the one foot in metal and one foot in sludgier and more stoner. He's probably written a hundred stoner tracks that were never meant for the band; that is something, 'I got to jot this down. This is cool.' He's always had that in him. Then, it's more a matter of the rest of us and the whole band, how much we want to incorporate. It's a balancing act. You had 'Ivory Tower' on 'The Violent Sleep', so we've had stuff that has been a little more toward this [style]. They were never instrumental, so that gives it another layer."
Blabbermouth: Your hands have been in the news a lot. How are you feeling now that you've gotten back into rehearsals and how do you feel about your upcoming shows?
Tomas: Today, I feel like it's slowly better. It's kind of been going up and down, so it's hard to tell. At this point, I learned not to take the victory lap. We'll wait and keep going and see how it turns out. I've been in contact with so many doctors over the last 18 months and no one really knows what it is. Lately, I've turned more toward a nutritionist and I think that's maybe is more where I need to search for a reason for this. Maybe it's a matter of diet and nicotine. We're trying to get to the root of this problem with nutritionists. It's already helped. Of course, it's a hassle as a drummer. If you were a guitarist, maybe it's worse, but as a drummer, I can tape my fingers up and put on gloves and grip tape on the sticks. I can do it, but if you are a guitarist, you can't tape your hands. It would be worse. It's a lot of taping. I have to tape all of my fingers and thumbs on both hands and use gloves and grip tape. It's not great. But we've rehearsed a few times and it's doable, but we haven't rehearsed a full set, like an hour and a half. Even though this tape is under gloves, you still wear and tear at it a lot. I don't know what it will be like after an hour and a half. During a live set, you don't want to stop the show, take your gloves off and start taping it up. It's kinda crucial that we get this under control. But I think we're getting there. I try to remain positive and I'm sure we'll figure this out."
Blabbermouth: Worst-case scenario, do you have a backup in mind if your hands don't hold up?
Tomas: "It's crossed our minds. We had a band meeting where we floated the idea of, 'Do we contact someone?' Should we see if we can get someone else to do this if I can't?' I don't know…it's challenging on many levels. It would suck so much. First, we have to play without Fredrik for three years. Then we come back with a new album, and I'm not there. Like guitar players, there are a ton of drummers that can play it on a technical level and perform it. That's not the problem. Again, we run into the same thing as guitar players, like yeah, who will that be? Being a band like ours, people come to see certain musicians. We're a musicians band in a lot of ways. It can get a little weird. Dick's first reaction was, 'Who wants to see RUSH without Neil Peart?' It's not like that, but I understand what he meant by it. With any band member, you can't just replace that person for this or that. It's definitely not a dream scenario. I'm going to have to try. Luckily, the first run is short. That will give us an idea if my hands are still bad, which will provide us with a pointer as to how to deal with this. We'll see."
Blabbermouth: You've been at this for so long playing a style of metal that you pioneered. Do you think about your musical mortality now?
Tomas: "Of course it does. It's not just this. For anyone in the band, maybe Dick excluded because he's ten years younger than the rest of us. Mårten has problems with his shoulders; I have had shoulder problems. We're getting up there. We're all 50 at this point. We're definitely feeling it and we have been feeling it. At the same time, you work around it and learn to, 'Yeah, maybe I won't feel great. My body is not going to feel great every night, but at the same time, yeah, this is what we chose to do and this is what we set out to do.' Sometimes you have to bite down and try as best as you can. As far as the band's mortality, we have obviously no idea. It's hard for me to visualize myself being 65 playing 'Bleed'. I'm a lazy bastard. When we have time off or hiatuses, I really don't play at all. That kind of interest in the drums, I don't have that anymore. It's more about how you want to perform this music you created. I am obviously the tool in the band that has to play the drums and Mårten and Fredrik, have to do their thing. It's more about realizing the key function you have to be able to go out and make this company work because nowadays, it's not only about pure excitement. I've seen our fair share of tour buses, so it's not like when you're 25, obviously. But it also changes. It's a cool thing, I guess. You transition from just pure excitement and you're so lucky that you can take this hobby and interest of yours and make it into something you can make money off of and make a living. During that transition, it also becomes more and more like, 'How do you want to run the company?' Touring is just an aspect of our job. It's something that comes with this job and comes with the territory. You really think more about the health and well-being of the company as such because we all, at this point, people have kids and stuff like that. We rely on this to work. It becomes a different kind of animal over time."